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How One Partnership Is Bringing Technology to the Tennis Court


By Noah Syken, Vice President of Sports and Entertainment Partnerships, IBM

In 1992, I was a senior at the University of Miami, enjoying my last semester before graduation and basking in the glow of the Miami Hurricanes’ national college football championship. I was 22 years old and not terribly concerned with the world outside of Florida.

But around that same time a series of events were taking place that would have a profound effect on my future: Tim Berners-Lee had just invented something called the World Wide Web and IBM had just signed its first contract to be the technology partner of the US Open tennis championship.

I share this history because today — some 30 years later —I work at IBM, and my team develops and delivers the digital experience of the US Open over that same World Wide Web (and now an app). And last week, IBM and the United States Tennis Association announced a 5-year renewal of the relationship.

In any other industry, 30 years is a long time. In the technology industry, it’s an eternity. This is a sector defined by disruption, so after we inked the renewal contract last month, I took some time to reflect on how any business relationship could endure through three decades of relentless change.

Indeed, over the last 30 years, almost everything about IBM’s partnership with the USTA has changed. The nature of the work has evolved, from building websites to developing mobile apps to using hybrid cloud and AI today. The people managing the relationship on both sides have also changed. Even the game of tennis itself has changed, from equipment to surfaces to playing styles.

Tennis ball GIF



Courtesy of IBM


What has endured, however, is trust. It’s a trust that is rooted in the work itself, of course. But more than that, it’s about cultivating honest relationships. It’s about communicating clearly and candidly. That’s the kind of relationship my team enjoys with people like USTA CEO Lew Sherr, Chief Commercial Officer Kirsten Corio, and Managing Director of Corporate Partnerships Deanne Pownall.

This brings me to the work we’ve done with the US Open this year. Like last year, we are using hybrid cloud and AI to transform tennis data into Match Insights with Watson, which measures player momentum with the IBM Power Index and shares predictions about each player’s likelihood to win. But new this year is something called Win Factors, which demonstrate Explainable AI. This means that we’re breaking down the black box of our AI analyses and sharing the actual reasoning behind Watson’s Likelihood to Win predictions.

Why? Well, for the 10 million people who engage with the US Open digital platforms, it’s just good content. But for businesses, understanding why AI reaches a certain conclusion is critical, especially as more companies rely on AI-driven decision-making. Not understanding why an AI algorithm serves up a peculiar ad to your social media feed is one thing. Not understanding why an AI algorithm denies an insurance claim to a valued customer is entirely different.

Like our partnership with the US Open, Explainable AI is a manifestation of one of IBM’s core values: trust and personal responsibility in all relationships. This isn’t wide-eyed altruism; it’s clear-eyed business strategy. Trust burnishes our brand, trust attracts talent, and trust sustains our business relationships.

I knew none of this as a newly minted college graduate 30 years ago. But during that time, as I enjoyed my last summer in South Beach, someone, somewhere, was laying the groundwork for a long-lasting relationship I would one day inherit. Today I’m here in Queens, New York – a little wiser, a lot grayer – and grateful to carry this enduring partnership forward.

This post was created by IBM with Insider Studios.



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